Monday, June 1, 2009

Hastening to be Present for the Feast of Pentecost

Dear Parish Faithful,

"For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost." (ACTS 16:20)

The Apostle Paul's so-called Third Missionary Journey lasted about five years (A.D. 53-58), and he spent most of that time in Ephesus, on the western coast of ancient Asia Minor (present day Turkey). Yet, for some reason, he felt compelled to return to Jerusalem. And, as the above verse makes clear, St. Paul strongly desired to be in the Holy City for the celebration of Pentecost. Was this for the traditional Jewish celebration of Pentecost? Or was there an already-existing Christian celebration of the Feast by that time? It would seem that by the mid-50's, the early Jewish Christians of Jerusalem would have marked the great Feast of Pentecost with their own experience of having received the gift of the Holy Spirit on that fiftieth day after the Passover (ACTS 2:1-11). These great commemorations of Passover and Pentecost that were so essential to Jewish life and piety, had been "Christianized" or "Christified" by Jewish Christians who understood the Death and Resurrection of Christ, together with the descent of the Holy Spirit, as the divinely-ordained fulfillment of the already-existing feasts that revealed God's special relationship with Israel. The crucified, risen and glorified Messiah had renewed Israel, and the emerging Church was the "holy remnant" of Israel that would take the Good News to the ends of the known world in order to bring salvation to all - Jew and Gentile alike. This is why the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES is such an exciting book, as we read there of the Spirit-guided mission of the apostles - especially the Apostle Paul - in extending the presence of the Church "in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." (ACTS 1:8) We are the recipients of that "extension" to this day.

Everyone is invited to (re)experience that excitement as we read and study the ACTS together in our Spring/Summer Bible Study. We will do our best to bring to life these great accomplishments of the early Church and to actualize them in our own quest to share the Gospel to this day with the world around us.

Be that as it may, I would like to concentrate on the Apostle Paul's desire and commitment to arrive in Jerusalem by the Feast of Pentecost. The Feast of Pentecost, seven weeks following Pascha, is not just "another Sunday" (in itself a poor expression that we may be prone to use at times). It is the Feast that brings to fulfillment and completion the paschal mystery of the Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. Without the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the risen and ascended Christ would no longer be present to us, but rather absent, and thus making us "spiritual orphans." The Holy Spirit is the other Parakletos (Advocate/Comforter) that Jesus spoke of as recorded in the Gospel According to St. John.

"And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever - the Spirit of truth ... " (JN. 14:16-17)

"But when the Comforter comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify to me." (JN. 15:26)

"However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth ... " (JN. 16:13)

The Risen Lord sends the Spirit, and it is the Spirit who makes Christ present to us. As Lev Gillett wrote: "The Spirit is sent to us by the Son, the Son is revealed to us by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not a substitute for Christ, but prepares us for Christ, forms him in us, makes him present in us." It is precisely here that we are so aware of the reciprocal work of the Son and the Holy Spirit - the "two hands of God" according to St. Irenaeus of Lyons. On the Day of Pentecost, we liturgically actualize the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit as did the apostles on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection. Then, following the Liturgy, during the Vespers of Pentecost, we "bend the knee" for the first time since Pascha, as we offer special and theologically-rich prayers to the Holy Spirit, seeking His abiding, healing, and transforming presence among us.

For these reasons we too "hasten" to be in church for Pentecost, as did the Apostle Paul. For St. Paul that meant another potentially perilous journey by sea, with shipwreck or pirates an ever-present danger. We will travel a shorter distance and with much greater comfort. Only unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances would give us a "reason worthy of a blessing" not to be present for the Feast. The church should be packed for Pentecost! And for those who would like to partake of the Feast on a fuller level, there is Great Vespers on the eve on Saturday evening. This festal Vespers further reveals to us the meaning of the Feast through its rich hymnography as well as allow us to experience the liturgical cycle to a greater extent. The Feast of Pentecost will test our "ecclesial consciousness," and yet simultaneously "reward' us with the fruits of the Spirit if our minds and hearts are open to the outpouring of the Spirit.

Fr. Steven

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